August 14, 2014

Stop digging

We have been here before.

Shipowners and shipmanagers in India are getting slightly alarmed, once again, at the shortage of officers in senior officer- particularly senior engineer officer- ranks. And, much like the blind men with the elephant, they single out one reason or the other as the main dish and hold it responsible. Managers say that maritime institutes are churning out people that are professionally unfit. That the Indian seamen of today are  unprofessional. That the passing percentage for officers and engineers who appear at the Certificate of Competency exams is very low because the system and its examiners are outdated, and that more people should be passed. And so on.

Unfortunately, much like the same blind men with the same elephant, they are all individually right but collectively wrong; they choose to ignore the forest for the trees. Everybody- politicians, regulators, MET setups and shipmanagers all- choose to ignore the fact that their own segments of the industry, that-with some exceptions- do little to solve the problem has no business pointing fingers anywhere except at themselves. That luring the unfit innocent or poaching the trained- both the main methods to meet manpower resources today - are tactics that are not sustainable, and never were. An industry that collectively does very little to address a problem should not whine when the chickens come home to roost.

In any case, I am not convinced that there is a dearth of officers out there, although there certainly may be a shortage of experienced and competent ones. This differentiation is important; it is actually key to understanding the problem and finding solutions, assuming, of course, that everybody wants to find these and is not just grandstanding.

Incidentally, trying to pressurise the Mercantile Marine Department’s surveyors to pass incompetent people is a recipe for further disaster. Tweak the examination system, by all means, because there are some things that need improving, but make the system stronger, not weaker.

We all have collectively dug the hole. We have individually contributed to the communal cesspool. With corruption- bureaucratic, political and in the private sector, where manning touts and corrupt executives thrive. With the STCW convention itself, and then with its motivated interpretation. With substandard- even useless- training and courses. With debauched manpower related practices in shipmanagement and by shipowners. With bent oversight or blinkered policies from the regulators. Almost every organisation, private or public, connected with the training and examination of seafarers has failed; most have failed spectacularly. The MMD, which is under fire today for not passing enough people, has probably failed the least of all.

And most will continue to fail, although a few of the top shipowners or shipmanagers that have started MET institutes are doing a decent job of it. They choose their trainees better, train them better and to their own specs and place them aboard their own ships. But the vast majority of MET institutions are taking their intake for a ride. The large majority of shipowners and shipmanagers still hope that their officer requirements will be met by somebody else who has invested time and money in training people that have now qualified. The vast majority of governments have, until recently, treated the Ministry of Shipping as a payoff- hence the mess that is the Indian Maritime University. And elements in regulatory bodies and the Ministry of Shipping have been unwilling or unable to stem the rot; we all know why.

Since shipowners will be the main beneficiaries of any enhanced officer quality, more have to become drivers of change. The regulators must clean up their act- and that of other private sector players that need to be cleaned up (or should that be cleaned out?). These two entities can, together, force change. I can’t think of anybody else who can.

I am not optimistic, though, because the system has become so corrupt (and I do not refer only to bribery) and dysfunctional that a complete overhaul is required. The finger pointing game will not get us anywhere, and neither will tweaking a stray element here and there. The problem is too big to be solved this way. The first step to a solution probably lies in returning to a system that promotes high quality of output- which means increasing the value of the Indian Certificate of Competency to what is used to be. This is the first duck that needs to be put in the row.

The mess is complete today and everyone is culpable, so everyone will have to contribute to cleaning it up. Since most will have to be forced- or persuaded at regulatory gunpoint- to clean it up, this will take some doing.

If and until that happens, can we at least stop pressurising the MMD examiners to pass more people, please? Devaluing the Indian COC further must be the daftest thing one can do at this stage. When you are in a hole, you should at least stop digging. 


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